“This is exactly the technology we need”

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Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: AdobeStock AA+W, StreetScooter GmbH

Germany should not get bogged down in long discussions about fuel cells but should take action and get this alternative drive technology on the road quickly – otherwise, as with the development of electromobility, valuable time would be lost. This is what Prof. Dr.-Ing. Achim Kampker urges. He is head of the Chair for Production Engineering of E-Mobility Components (PEM) at RWTH Aachen University and co-founded Streetscooter.

The German government is promoting the fuel cell as an alternative drive, especially in long-distance and freight transport. It has also integrated this project into the economic stimulus package to mitigate the economic consequences of the corona pandemic. Is Germany putting its money on the right horse?

Prof. Achim Kampker: Definitely yes. If we want to achieve the climate targets, there is no way around the fuel cell, especially in heavy goods traffic. It is therefore essential that we act more quickly, discuss less and move forward quickly. If I go back ten years in my mind, I have a kind of déjà vu: back then, we wondered whether batteries were a promising technology. At that time I sat on many committees discussing whether investing in electric mobility was worthwhile. And we did not want to become active until all open questions, for example on charging infrastructure, were resolved. This reminds me of the reluctance to deal with the fuel cell now – which I think is wrong. In addition, the technologies are being played off against each other.

Who will win – fuel cell or battery?

This question is the wrong approach for me, because the technologies are not in competition. They complement each other and together they can solve all the problems we face in mobility. The battery is optimal for the urban environment and for lighter vehicles, especially in retrofitting such as with BPW eTransport. On longer distances, it will hardly be economically viable for at least the next ten years, but after that the boundaries could blur. The fuel cell, on the other hand, is suitable for orders of magnitude from 3.5 tonnes and for a daily range of more than 250 kilometres. If I now wanted to convert a truck or build a new one, I would always use a combination of a slightly smaller battery and a fuel cell range extender.

But what’s wrong with the technology?
Their efficiency is often criticised. But you have to look at the whole package: If we have 80 percent efficiency for an electric vehicle, then the figure is 40 percent for the fuel cell, 20 percent for the combustion engine and even less for synthetic fuels. The efficiency of alternative energies is therefore at least twice as high as that of the combustion engine. Hydrogen leads the way in storage. In this respect, the fuel cell is exactly the technology we need.
What are Germany’s strengths with regard to fuel cells?
I think that its value-added structure is also very helpful to us in economic terms, because we can cope well with the high level of complexity, we have the necessary machinery and a great deal of control knowledge. Batteries require more chemical expertise – we have caught up there, but we cannot make the best cut everywhere, especially in terms of jobs and value creation. That alone is not the reason why we should rely on the fuel cell, but in combination it is a nice effect.

»With a view to climate protection, the fuel cell truck is necessary within the next four to five years – and this time horizon is realistic in my opinion.«

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Achim Kampker

What are the remaining hurdles?
As with the battery in the beginning, the biggest challenge is cost efficiency. We have to tackle this now and have to go deep into the production processes. We will certainly need five-digit unit numbers for fuel cell systems in order to achieve economies of scale – and that means we have a hen-and-egg situation: the price must drop, but to do so we need higher unit numbers. We need to break this knot, and we are working intensively on this here at RWTH Aachen University. Other challenges are the supplier network, which must be established, the quality of the individual elements and the lowest possible reject rates. The fuel cell works. You have to achieve a high number of operating hours, but that is possible with intelligent systems. So we can and should now move massively into series production.
Should the manufacturers also cooperate more closely in this area?
At the level of stack production, I think it would be useful for manufacturers to work together rather than spend a decade discussing whether it makes sense to produce the cells in Europe or not, as it is the case with cell production. We need to move things forward together and then differentiate ourselves through the system. The fuel cell truck is necessary for climate protection within the next four to five years – and I believe that this time horizon is also realistic, so that it can be put on the road in larger quantities, and in smaller series even earlier. This is feasible.
“Just go!”, “Faster!” – This sounds simple, but in practice it is not always easy. What do you think: what else do the actors need to become active here?
In Germany there is a very strong belief that everything has to pay off after three years. But that doesn’t work with a technology like this. We therefore need to have the courage to invest to achieve the breakthrough – all the more so against the background of the Corona crisis. Unfortunately, financing is difficult to obtain in Germany: If you just look at the sums that have been made available for new commercial vehicle manufacturers in the USA or England, while here it was so difficult to find an investor for street scooters, even though 12,000 vehicles were already in use! This is a cultural issue, and if we want to continue to be successful, we really need to break this down and invest the capital that is available to us as an economy in such issues as well, rather than just improving processes. Only in this way can we still be as successful in ten years’ time as we are now. At the moment we are relying on horses that will one day be dead and cannot be ridden any further. But we urgently need the foals that will allow us to continue to develop.
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